Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Executive decision

Peter Kent

While the government seems to be charging full steam ahead with executive headships, Peter Kent questions whether this trend will ultimately do the profession more harm than good.

l headteachers are equal, but executive headteachers are more equal than others."

Not quite the words of Orwell, but it does seem to capture the philosophy currently being put forward by the DfES.

Over recent months, two organisations closely tasked with implementing government policy - the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust and the National College for School Leadership - have extensively advertised training courses on executive headship.

NCSL has gone a stage further by publishing a study which "investigates what executive headship looks like in a variety of settings".

Whilst NCSL and the SSAT are responding to a clear training need, it does worry me that we appear to be missing an obvious question: is executive headship a direction in which the profession should be going?

In one sense the question is irrelevant. The reality is that a number of ASCL members are executive heads and have had tremendous success.

Within my own county of Warwickshire I know of two executive heads who have transformed more than one school through their talent, energy and commitment.

In the primary sector, it has been a godsend for small schools whose future might not otherwise be sustainable.

ASCL evidence to the current leadership review has acknowledged the role of executive heads and has pressed for a clearer recognition of their status and role.

Fatal attraction

However, might it be that central government has fallen into its usual trap of assuming that because something works in one environment, it can be transferred to every other school in the country?

One can see the attractions of the executive model for those in government. At a time when recruitment is difficult (and likely to get harder), why not group schools together so that fewer heads are needed?

There will be clear economies of scale, the talents of proven heads can be shared around and (perhaps most importantly from the government's perspective) there will be fewer embarrassing headlines about unfilled vacancies.

However, before we rush down this road, there are some important questions that need to be asked. Firstly, do executive headteachers broaden career opportunities or limit them?

Structures within which one executive head oversees the work of two or three associate heads can appear outwardly attractive. One associate head told me that the role had allowed her to gain experience without having to face the plethora of accountabilities that usually come with the top job.

If used correctly, the structure can clearly be an important first step on the road to a full headship. However, my fear is that if used wrongly it may actually stifle opportunity.

Could members of the leadership team who should progress on to full headship find themselves stuck as an associate head? Would large numbers of schools never have their own head again?

Keep it personal

The second question centres on the importance of personal relationships. One wonders how someone overseeing two or three schools can build strong and lasting relationships with staff, the leadership team and indeed the students.

Is there not a danger that this new model will promote an image of heads as distant managerial figures, only seen on feast days?

Most of us came into the teaching profession because we enjoy working with people. The idea that our ultimate goal should be to become 'executives' who hardly ever make contact with the very people that we are meant to be serving is, to say the least, less than attractive.

Finally, there are questions related to independence. Many of us have spent the past ten years or so fighting for greater autonomy for schools. Where once we might have had to defer to the local authority, many schools now make decisions themselves.

My fear is that in another ten years, instead of asking the local authority, we might be saying instead, "I will have to ask my executive headteacher."

Just when we are on the brink of the earned autonomy that ASCL has fought so hard for, there is a real danger that the profession will sleepwalk into yet another structure that takes away the independence of individual schools.

The advent of an inspection system based upon self-evaluation has been strongly welcomed by the DfES. How ironic then that initiatives such as executive headship appear not to have been subjected to the same scrutiny or questioning.

Instead of asking NCSL to investigate what executive headship looks like, why does the DfES not ask them to investigate in what contexts executive headship may or may not work?

If any of our SEFs displayed the same set of careless assumptions that the DfES have demonstrated on this issue, I suspect that Ofsted would be less than indulgent.

Peter Kent is Head of Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby, an 11-18 school for boys.

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